LOUISVILLE — Although the race is more than a month away, the field for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby is starting to take shape and soon will become clear with the conclusion of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series.
Whether you’re a diehard racing fan who has followed the 3-year-old horses the past six months or this is your introduction to this year’s Kentucky Derby field, it’s an exciting time to follow horse racing and the runners we will be talking about on the first Saturday in May.
Since last September the top four finishers in 28 designated races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby have earned points toward entry into the Derby, with the final opportunities occurring over the next few weeks. The points system also extends an invitation to the winners of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby and the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby to make up the limited field of 20 runners in the $3 million Derby on May 4.
The horses currently sitting in the first two spots on the leaderboard — trainer Bret Calhoun’s Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards with 100 points and the Mark Casse-trained Risen Star winner War of Will with 60 points — already have secured a place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, assuming all goes well between now and then.
The March 23 Louisiana Derby was the first of seven races offering 100 points to the winner, which means it only takes one big win to get to the Kentucky Derby. That was true for By My Standards who entered the Louisiana Derby with only a maiden win under his belt. War of Will, a multiple graded-stakes winner, was favored, but lost his footing early and never recovered. It was discovered later that he had strained the patellar ligament in his left-hind leg, but was reported to be much improved the next day and has not been ruled out of the Derby, just six weeks away.
Three of the remaining races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby have produced the last seven Derby winners. The Florida Derby, which runs at Gulfstream Park on March 30, produced Kentucky Derby winners Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016) and Always Dreaming (2017). The Santa Anita Derby, that is scheduled to run April 6 at Santa Anita Park, was the final prep for I’ll Have Another (2012), California Chrome (2014) and Triple Crown winner Justify (2018). The Arkansas Derby, slated to run April 13, was the last stop for American Pharoah before he went on to win the Triple Crown in 2015.
Horses to watch in the Florida Derby include Claude “Shug” McGaughey’s Code of Honor, who won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, runner-up Bourbon War, trained by Mark Hennig, and fourth-place finisher Hidden Scroll. Code of Honor maneuvered through traffic from mid-pack before closing in on the race favorite Hidden Scroll at the top of the stretch. As Code of Honor began to pull away to a three-quarter-length win, Bourbon War sped forward to take down rivals, but just couldn’t get to Code of Honor in time. Both runners received Equibase speed figures in the triple digits, which is impressive for horses this early into their 3-year-old campaigns.
The recent closure of Santa Anita Park over 22 horse deaths occurring between December and early March, forced the cancellation of the San Felipe Stakes, a prep race for the Santa Anita Derby. The track is slated to reopen Friday, but the nearly four-week closure caused a change of plans for many Kentucky Derby hopefuls on the West Coast.
California-based trainer Bob Baffert shipped to Arkansas and used Oaklawn Park’s Rebel Stakes as a prep for his grade-one winner Improbable and 2-year-old champion Game Winner. Both were undefeated going into the Rebel, which was split into two divisions to accommodate the numerous horses looking for a race after the cancellation of the San Felipe. Each running in separate divisions, Game Winner failed as the favorite, losing to the front-running Omaha Beach who held off his challenge into the stretch and took victory by a nose. Improbable suffered a similar defeat as he was caught at the wire, losing a neck after succumbing to a late charge from Long Range Toddy.
Game Winner likely will return in the Santa Anita Derby where he may face stablemate, Roadster, a lightly-raced colt Baffert once regarded as his next Justify. Roadster lost to Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity last September, but got back to the winner’s circle in his first start for the year, an allowance race earlier this month. Also probable for the Santa Anita Derby is trainer Richard Mandella’s Extra Hope, beaten by 3½ lengths by Long Range Toddy in the Rebel.
Oaklawn Park’s Arkansas Derby could see Baffert’s Improbable take on Rebel division winners Omaha Beach and Long Range Toddy. The race also will include Smarty Jones Stakes winner Gray Attempt, who recently won the Gazebo Stakes after suffering a hind-end injury in the Feb. 18 Southwest Stakes.
But the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby are just some of the races left to go before we see the top 3-year-olds run for the roses in May. Other races not to be missed include the March 30 UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup card, Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes that produced last year’s Kentucky Derby runner-up Good Magic, and Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial, both running April 6. Also remaining is Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes on April 13, which offers 24 points to the winner and may be the last hope for those horses that find themselves at the bottom of the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.